Every year when the Chase for the Championship round of 10 races begins that will eventually crown the season’s champion, two tracks stick out as the ones that could play the biggest role in who will wear the crown. The interesting thing about those two tracks is that they follow each other on the schedule and that one is the shortest track (Martinsville) on the schedule, and the other is Talladega, which is the longest on the schedule.
This past Sunday at Martinsville, Denny Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota powered their way to victory lane and in the process trimmed Jimmie Johnson’s lead from 41 points down to six. The win should have come as no surprise, as Joe Gibbs Racing is presently the king of the short tracks.
Hamlin had been pointing to Martinsville ever since the Chase started, saying that Martinsville would be the track that he would make his move to put himself in contention for denying Jimmie Johnson his fifth consecutive Sprint Cup Series title.
He had every right to believe that this would be the track for that to happen, as he has won five of the last eight short track races, which includes the tracks of Richmond, Bristol and Martinsville. His confidence was fueled even more by Joe Gibbs Racing’s record on short tracks, as the three-team operation has won nine of the past 10 short track races.
Unfortunately for Hamlin, Martinsville is the only short track on the 10-race Chase schedule and this week the series will roll into Talladega to compete on the huge tri-oval that is so fast that NASCAR mandates the use of horsepowerrobbing restrictor plates to keep the speeds down.
Since Talladega requires the use of the restrictor plates, it also requires that drivers work together to take advantage of the draft. Two cars, when hooked up nose to tail, will be faster than a car by itself on the track, so if a driver is going to make his way to victory lane he is going to have to have a lot of help from other drivers.
The Chase is now a three-man race as Kevin Harvick also picked up 15 points on Johnson by finishing third on Sunday, and that cut his deficit from the top spot to 62 points. It’s the closest that three drivers have been to each other after the first six races of the Chase since its inception. All three would love to leave Talladega as being the closest three after the first seven races and there is a very good possibility of that happening as all three have had success at the track.
Harvick actually won there back in April and Hamlin finished fourth, but it was Johnson that had the roughest day. He got caught up in an accident and limped home in the 31st spot, but he has had plenty of success on the restrictor plate tracks that also include Daytona. He has posted five wins on the high-speed tracks to go along with 14 top-five and 22 top-10 finishes in 49 career starts.
Just four races remain before the champion is crowned, so all three drivers can’t afford to play it safe. All three will have to get up on the wheel and stay out of trouble and be around at the end with a chance for at least a top-five finish. That’s easier said than done, as Talladega is home to the “big one’ that can collect a driver before he even has a chance to avoid the accident. This race could indeed turn out to be the ‘wild card’ that separates one of these drivers and propels him on to the title.
The declining television ratings during the Chase has NASCAR officials and ESPN huddling together to try and come up with a plan that would once again see viewer ratings climb. It could be that the uniform 1 p.m. start time is in jeopardy of being changed for next season. One p.m. is the same time as the NFL’s early kickoff games that have always drawn more viewers than a NASCAR race. Fans at the track love the 1 p.m. start, but next season could see the Chase race start later in the afternoon, forcing fans a late night of travel after a race.
Amp Energy Juice 500
(2.66-mile oval, 33 degrees of
banking in the turns)
Oct. 31, 1 p.m.